Teaching cultural history though mythological legends
The Czechs don’t believe in sugar-coating history, not even for children. Despite being an overtly skeptical population, when it comes to Czech heritage, legends, mythology and folklore are treated just as seriously, if not more so, than the recorded historical facts. It seems that learning the country’s basic legends is as important part of a Czech child’s scholastic upbringing as mastering proper penmanship. To this point, there are several resonant cultural myths that every respectable Praguer (whether a Czech native or a foreign transplant), is expected to know.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that my daughter Anna Lee’s first grade class recently learned the legend of divoká Šárka (wild Šárka) during their first all-day field trip to the nearby Šárka natural reserve. I confess I hadn’t expected my “innocent” six-year-old to retell such a gruesome story of murder and trickery with glee. But I suppose my own prudish reaction at the blood and gore involved in this legend of a “maiden’s war” would have been just as surprising to most of the Czechs I know. Although the myth surrounding Šárka isn’t perhaps as popular with tourists as the tale of Golem from Prague’s Jewish quarter or legends about Old Town’s astrological clock, still, for those Czechs living near the romantic, rocky landscape commonly known as Divoká Šárka, the legend is one to be remembered.
The picturesque and spacious park is renowned for its wild, natural beauty including an unusual variety of landscapes, plants and animals, as well as a series of hiking and biking trails and an outdoor swimming pool, reputed to have cold, but very clean water. For years, I had thought mainly of the park as a place where we went for organized Forest Day nature walks or as a pleasant landscape I drove through on our regular visits to the pediatrician. I knew “Šárka” was the name of a fabled Czech maiden from ancient civilization, but until Anna arrived from school, fresh with details of the new history she’d learned, I didn’t know much more.
According to popular Czech legend, some 1500 years ago in the 6th or 7th century, the Slavic population living in the wild lands around Prague (in the modern-day Šárka valley) was ruled by a matriarchy led by the beloved Queen Libuše. When the queen died, her husband Prince Přemysl took her place, thus sparking a fierce civil war between the Slavic women and men. As legend tells it, the war continued for some time until a young maiden named Šárka set up a trap for Ctirad, the greatest fighter for the opposing all-male army. Using her feminine wiles and her fighting prowess, Šárka positioned herself so the men would find her staked to a tree. She claimed to have been captured by a band of the warring maidens and used her natural charms to coerce Ctirad to free her. Once free, she treated Ctirad and his men to some mead which she claimed the maidens left to tempt her with. As Czech men will be Czech men, the warriors drank the mead until they passed out in a drunken stupor. At that point, the rest of the maidens jumped from their hiding spots and killed all the men, except Ctirad, who was taken as their prisoner. Some versions of the story claim Ctirad died at the maidens’ hands as well while others claim he was kept as a prisoner. Although the maiden’s were victorious on this occasion, legend says they were ultimately defeated by the men’s stronger forces.
From Anna’s point of view, the most intriguing facts of the legend concerned the dívčí válka (maiden’s war) and the dívčí skok (maiden’s jump), which was the rocky ledge from which a remorseful Šárka was believed to have ultimately jumped to her death. Although Anna didn’t know much about why the women had started fighting the men or why the warrior Ctirad and his men needed to be killed, the legend clearly made an impression on her. Several days later she announced that her class would be performing the legend of the maiden’s war for their school the following day. She had volunteered to be Šárka, and we needed to come up with an appropriate costume.
After rejecting all her fancy dresses as too modern or too princess-like, we finally settled upon a traditional German dress with an apron, an outfit sent to me as a child from my aunt in Berlin. We found a white billowy blouse and some white ballet shoes to complete her look. Although pictures on the internet depicted Šárka as a more coquettish character clad in a sheer cavewoman-type dress and carrying a staff, our choice seemed appropriate for a grammar-school production. With only one night’s notice, we didn’t have time to come up with anything more authentic.
Upon learning of the theater production, I was just as pleasantly surprised as I had been by the children’s initial field-trip. Although I know that Czechs pride themselves on their country’s historic legends, I didn’t anticipate such a hands-on-learning approach during school hours.
For a variety of reasons, the field trip itself surprised me. An out-of-school jaunt of this type in my own hometown in the US would require advance permission slips and extra volunteer chaperones, not the simple written notification we received the night before the trip. We did have to sign off saying that we’d been informed of the trip, but details, such as how the children would get to the park or what they would do once they arrived, were left to our imagination. Of course, since the school is within a block from a tram line that runs up Evropská street and alongside the rugged, rocky landscape that forms the higher edges of the Šárka reserve, transportation was a no-brainer. As for extra chaperones or the game-plan for the day, I’m slowly learning that sometimes it’s better not to ask too many questions in advance.
After the field trip, Anna’s teacher applauded the children for hiking 5 Km on terrain that some adults hadn’t wanted to attempt. Anna didn’t comment on the hiking, except to casually mention that she’d accidentally dropped her backpack from one of the rocky ledges while the class was having a snack break. She said she’d had “good luck” and that the bag hadn’t fallen all the way down the cliff. Her teacher had been able to retrieve it from a snagged branch down below. In the past, I’ve noticed Czech children scampering over treacherous rocky outcrops in Český ráj without paying a bit of attention to the guardrails or their own parents, so I was relieved to have learned about the difficult details of the hike only in retrospect. In general, safety is a more individual concept in the Czech Republic and citizens are expected to respect their own limitations without needing prompting from external safety or warning signs.
I was glad that Anna’s first field trip had been a memorable one, and I thought it particularly remarkable that in this often chauvinistic society, school children were exposed to a historical myth that represented early Czech men and women as warring equals. I’m not sure if the schoolchildren picked up on the overt message that the combination of a beautiful woman and alcohol often brings trouble for men, at least for Czech ones. But that message is one sure to be repeated if they spend much time in Czech culture. As for my own cultural education, I’m pleased that I was able a new Czech legend alongside Anna. When I retold the story, however, she was quick to interrupt and remind me, that even though it’s a nice tale, no one today knows if it’s really true. Not bad for a first-grader, I thought.